Connected Threads: Textiles of West Africa

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September 15 – October 30, 2010

Curated by Anna Mullen, as part of her undergraduate honors project

Textile production in Western Africa is an important cultural, and more recently industrial, process that extends across national borders. The wide array of cloths produced in this region show the diversity of the individual cultural groups that reside in sub-Saharan Africa. From the dyers of Bamako, Mali to the weavers of Ghana, cloth production symbolizes each population through the artistic expression of color and pattern.

The four most recognizable textiles are the kente, adinkra, and wax-print cloth from Ghana as well as the traditional bogolanfini “mud cloths” from southern Mali. Infusions of tie-dye prints also extend into textile design in this region. The production, symbolism, and distribution of each type of cloth provide a cultural patchwork of knowledge. Just like a single thread in the loom, the details of West African textiles are key to understanding the culture itself.

Adinkra Cloth
Adinkra textiles combine the technique of block weaving with an additional overlay of stamped designs in a wide range of motifs. Traditionally crafted for funerals, adinkra prints are associated with dark and somber colors, but more individuals are beginning to use colorful backgrounds as the base fabric. To add decorative patterns, artisans map off a grid for each division of the cloth. Stamps representing cultural icons are carved out of calabash shells for printing within the sections of cloth. Each stamped motif is unique. The two most common stamp forms are the crescent moon and the fern leaf. Some contemporary adinkra use factory produced cloth as the foundation for the stamped patterns rather than hand-woven cloth.

Wax Print Cloth
Wax prints did not originate in Ghana, but Ghanaians have adopted them as their own. The dyed cotton cloth was first manufactured in Holland around the turn of 19th century after the Dutch learned the art of wax resist from Javanese and Indonesian traders. Realizing they had a large market in West Africa, Dutch manufacturers such as Vlisco Co. designed special prints to meet the African aesthetic.

The process of creating wax prints starts with commercially woven cotton cloth. A large copper roller etched with the design is coated with hot wax that is then applied to the cloth. After being submerged in an indigo dye bath, the wax is removed to reveal a white design on a blue ground. Secondary dye colors are applied to the cloth using large stamps.

Wax print motifs reflect traditional Ashanti proverbs, comment on area politics and history, and represent local emblems and products.  With such an internationally recognized style, wax-print cloths and their significance continue to increase.

Tie and Dye Cloth
In Western Africa, the tie and dye method is called Adire which literally means “to take, to tie and dye.”  There are two popular methods of preparing fabric in tie and dye; one utilizes fabric wrapped around a kernel of corn to create a circle, while the second involves sewing tucks in the fabric. Both the corn and the tucks are removed after dyeing, leaving a white pattern.

Traditional dyeing uses hand-woven strips of cloth but with the onset of modernization, factory produced textiles are also used. Natural dyes from plants, such as indigo and other raw materials, are used to color the fabric. Additional embellishments may be added to complete the garment including shells, beads, and raffia strips. The most important aspect of this textile production method is its diverse composition. Every tie and dye cloth is unique and a direct representation of the artist’s creativity.

Kente Cloth
Kente cloth has its origins in the Asante tribe of Ghana. Once recognized as the royal textile of the community, kente is internationally known for its bright geometric block patterns. Bold colors such as blue, green, red, and gold are most common in the traditional kente cloth, woven in four inch wide strips on horizontal treadle looms. The strips are then sewn together to form larger fabrics. Like many craftsman in the United States, weavers of kente are organized in artisan communities. In Ghana, the most famous kente community is a village called Bonwire.

As production methods dispersed, kente cloth took on a variety of patterns and symbolic meanings. It is a visual representation of the history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, and aesthetic sensibilities of the Asante people. Kente cloth is produced in greater quantity, exported to more places, and incorporated into a wider variety of products than any other art form originating from the Africa continent. Preservation of traditional techniques and evolution of modern methods of kente weaving continue today.

Global Mamas
During the summer of 2010, three young women in the Apparel, Merchandising, and Design (AMD) program had the opportunity to complete internships with Global Mamas, a Fair Trade apparel company located in Accra, Ghana, West Africa. Jessica Galasso, Hillary Van Ham, and Jordan Croft were the first ISU students to participate in the internship program that included hands–on experiences in product development, creating motifs for batik textiles and designing apparel and accessories for Global Mamas’ 2011 catalog.

Established in 2004, “Global Mamas is the name brand for goods produced through the efforts of Women in Progress, an international not-for-profit organization assisting women of Africa in attaining economic independence. All proceeds made by Global Mamas’ sales go directly to the women producing the merchandise and to the business development programs carried out by Women in Progress. Sales of Global Mamas’ products provide dignity to African women who are now able to earn an honest living through the production of handmade batik products. By helping women to help themselves, Global Mamas is taking small steps towards helping end Africa’s dependence on foreign aid and creating a sustainable society.”1

Curator: Anna Mullen is a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Science studying Anthropology and History. For the last two years she has worked with the Department of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management under the advisement of Dr. Sara B. Marcketti, to develop this exhibit.

1Fair Trade. Global Mamas. Retrieved 2 September, 2010 from http://globalmamas.org/Info/3-FairTrade.aspx